31 Aug 21

Goya’s Visions

The universality of Goya’s art lies in his pursuit of truth, making his observations of society and human nature as relevant today as they were in his own time.

Goya: Drawings from the Prado Museum features 160 works on paper by the great Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746– 1828). The focus of the exhibition is a selection of forty-four works on loan from the Prado Museum in Madrid, making this the largest group of Goya’s drawings ever to be seen in Australia. The works span thirty years of his practice, from early social satires through to the enigmatic visions and dreams recorded in his late drawings. Together with prints on loan from the Art Gallery of South Australia, and more than 100 works from the NGV’s Collection, the drawings reveal the striking modernity of Goya’s work. In acerbic satirical observations, con- fronting depictions of violence and trauma, and surreal flights of fantasy, Goya presents a vision of humanity that had no equivalent in the art of his day.

A chronicler of his time
In contrast to his commissioned portraits and religious paintings, Goya’s prints and drawings were not financed by a patron. This gave him the freedom to critique social ills: the abuse of power, hypocrisy and popular superstitions all came under Goya’s critical eye. He was an obsessive observer, a habit that became more entrenched after Goya suffered a severe illness that left him profoundly deaf. While recovering at the house of his friend Sebastián Martínez in 1793, he studied Martínez’s collection of prints, which included works by Rembrandt and English satirical etchings. This inspired Goya to record his own observations and responses to current events. It was at this time, aged around forty-eight, that he turned to drawing, and this practice became an integral part of his life. Over the next thirty years Goya kept a visual journal of his thoughts and ideas on a wide range of subjects. His drawings were private works, shown only to people whom he trusted, except for those he intended to etch and publish.

Twenty of the forty-four drawings in this exhibition are related to prints in Goya’s four major etching series: Los Caprichos, The Disasters of War, La Tauromaquia and Los Disparates. Most of these preparatory drawings were made for Goya’s first, and arguably most important, series Los Caprichos (The Caprices), published in 1799. He described the eighty prints in the series as representing ‘follies which are common throughout civilised society’ including ‘vulgar prejudices and frauds rooted in custom, ignorance, or interest’.1Advertisement for Los Caprichos in Diario de Madrid, 6 Feb. 1799.

Although significant social and political reforms had been implemented during the late eighteenth century, Goya’s Spain was still steeped in tradition and superstition, governed by anachronistic laws and moral codes. Careful not to target known individuals, Goya used the device of the capricho (a fantasy or invention) to critique character types. This was to make the subjects of his satires universally applicable, and to avoid scrutiny and censorship by the Inquisition.

Many of the Caprichos images are commentaries on the relationship between men and women, including scenes of courtship ritual, unequal marriage and sex work. In the drawing Young man looking through a magnifying glass at a maja and the related print Even thus he cannot make her out, a young dandy approaches a ‘maja’, a Spanish name for the lively, fashionable lower-class women who wore flamboyant Spanish dress, in contrast to the Francophile attire of the upper classes.

Leaning in towards the young maja, the curious admirer uses a magnifying glass, as if to examine a specimen, and yet he cannot see who she is. He mistakes her attentive behaviour as innocent flirtation, rather than the strategic seduction of a sex worker. Images such as this draw attention to acts of trickery and deception in social interaction. They reveal the veiled intentions, gullibility and ignorance of the protagonists and, at the same time, prompt an unsettling recognition of what we all fail to see, or try to hide from others.

Goya’s images appeal to independent and critical thought. They are allegorical, rather than literal, and their meaning is not explained by a single interpretation. Goya’s most famous print, The sleep of reason produces monsters, is a prime example of this brilliant ambiguity. It shows an author or artist asleep at his desk, while nocturnal creatures surround him, and a lynx watches from below. This work is widely accepted as a self-portrait, and the evidence for this is a preparatory drawing that shows the man asleep on an etching press, and Goya’s own face among the dream apparitions. The image suggests the limits of reason – we only have to be dormant for an instant in order for the irrational to be unleashed. Furthermore, the print has become an iconic image of the modern artist whose creativity is a balancing act between reason and fantasy. It anticipates the Romantic idea that the creative genius is in danger of being overwhelmed by the power of his imagination.

Positioned halfway through the Caprichos series, The sleep of reason produces monsters introduces a group of images depicting witches, goblins and fantastical hybrid creatures. The ‘monsters’ produced by the sleep of reason are allegories of vice, falsehood, superstition and fear. They range from the outright evil to the banal: witches engaged in the trade of children, lustful satyrs promoting power-hungry politicians, and monsters grooming one another. Members of the clergy are included in these scenes of illicit nocturnal activities – they are seen instructing donkey-eared disciples, congregating to conspire in malicious acts, or secretly engaging in excessive drinking.

War and violence
Goya was sixty-two years old when the Peninsular War began in 1808. All of Spain was swept up in this brutal six-year conflict, in which patriots fought the Napoleonic army and guerrilla groups formed throughout the provinces. Conventional rules of engagement did not apply, and atrocities were committed on all sides. Goya would not have seen much, if any, of the conflict at close range. His images are based on stories and reports, and rely heavily on his imagination.

The Disasters of War prints, etched between 1810 and 1815, are radically different from any other images of warfare produced in Goya’s time.

Because the series was not commissioned, Goya was not obliged to follow a conventional narrative of heroic deeds and patriotic martyrs. What he presents is a series of eighty harrowing images of cruelty and suffering, relentless in their cumulative effect. The prints include acts of barbarity, mutilation and execution, as well as images depicting the plight of civilians, violence against women, famine, and the trauma that continues long after the conflict has ceased.

Goya was working on the plates during the war and the subsequent reign of terror under the reinstated Spanish King Ferdinand VII. While he was employed at the court, and working on two monumental paintings commemorating the Spanish uprising against Napoleonic troops, The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808 (both completed in 1814), Goya was making these small-scale etchings with recycled materials and limited means.

And there is no remedy depicts a subject reminiscent of the execution scene in Goya’s The Third of May 1808. In the etching, a Spaniard is about to be shot by a firing squad. The French soldiers are outside the picture frame on the right, the pointed barrels of their rifles indicating that the execution is seconds away. This harrowing scene is repeated in the background, where three French soldiers are shown in the act of shooting another victim. Goya uses light and dark contrast to full effect in the sky, and the illumination of the men in the foreground. As in so many of these prints, Goya presents a ‘staged’ scenario, a brilliantly conceived drama that leaves no viewer indifferent. He confronts us with extremes, and tests our courage to see the very worst of humanity. No artist before him (or, arguably, since) has made such an emphatic personal statement about war, and the series had an enormous influence on modern artists such as Pablo Picasso and Otto Dix.

Many of Goya’s drawings from the 1810s to early 1820s portray people on the margins of society – beggars, prisoners and elderly men and women struggling to survive. From his letters we know that the young Goya had visited a mental asylum and watched a woman convicted of heresy be burnt at the stake. He was drawn to extremes, driven by a morbid fascination, and perhaps by the compulsion to see what humankind is capable of. At the same time, Goya looks inward – he records his dream apparitions in drawings titled Burlesque visions and Bad dream, and creates idealistic allegories of Enlightenment values in his images of liberty, reason and truth, all of which can be seen in this exhibition.

While the Disasters of War remained unpublished until 1863, thirty-five years after the artist’s death, Goya published a series of etchings of bullfighting scenes, La Tauromaquia (The Art of Bullfighting) in 1816. His fascination with violence led him to explore this quintessentially Spanish blood sport, in which human and animal are pitted against one another in a fight to the death. The series was a commercial failure but, undeterred, Goya had already commenced work on the next set of etchings, the Disparates (Follies or Absurdities), 1815–19.

In the Disparates Goya reworked some of the themes and figures from the Caprichos and the Disasters of War, but these late etchings are far more enigmatic than any of his earlier prints. In the Caprichos satires, Goya’s aim was to unmask the truth behind appearances. His monstrous allegories and often cryptic titles can be decoded to reveal a moralistic message or a kernel of truth. However, in the Disparates etchings, there is no such clarity. The distinction between reality and dream, truth and illusion, becomes indistinguishable. In this fusion of the real and the imagined, Goya explores wonder, horror and absurdity as central aspects of life.

The dark Disparates prints are strongly evocative of moods and emotions. Images such as Disorderly folly show figures subjected to forces beyond their control – bodies are tied down, or pushed and pulled in different directions, conveying sensations that are familiar from nightmares or states of fear. This print depicts a Janus-faced orator in a bleak landscape, other etchings show a group of figures huddled on a fragile tree branch, or monstrous men and women engaged in strange rituals whose purpose eludes us.

The subjects and mood of the Disparates are similar to those depicted in the so-called Black Paintings that Goya painted on the walls of his house around the same time. These nightmarish visions have played a big part in shaping our image of Goya’s character, and they have been at the heart of posthumous myth-making throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Cast as a tragic genius, a non-conformist and the embodiment of the fiercely independent Spanish spirit, Goya’s image has served various clichés and purposes. However, it is important to remember that he worked for four successive monarchs, and was adept at pleasing patrons while working on self-funded projects that allowed him to express his personal and political views.

Goya received a pension from the Spanish king until the day he died, even though he spent the last four years of his life in self-imposed exile in southern France. At the advanced age of seventy-eight Goya settled in Bordeaux. His friend Leandro Fernández de Moratín described Goya when he arrived in his newly adopted home as ‘so content and so eager to see the world’.2 Leandro Fernández de Moratín, letter to Juan Antonio Melón González, Bordeaux, 27 June 1824. Goya continued to work with undiminished curiosity and commitment. The drawings in his last two albums, dated 1824–28, include disturbing, absurd and humorous satires – many are portraits of solitary figures, madmen, winged monsters, street performers, prisoners, ghosts, nuns and monks. Phantom dancing with castanets is a carnivalesque figure, seemingly dressed in monk’s robes, and reminiscent of the dancing giant in the Disparates print Simpleton.

Like the Freudian ‘return of the repressed’, the phantoms of Goya’s images reappear in different guises, confronting us with unresolved problems. Goya was endlessly inquisitive, constantly reimagining existing motifs and inventing new ones. He also explored new mediums including lithography and miniature painting on ivory during the final years of his life. A drawing in one of the Bordeaux albums seems to sum up Goya’s attitude during this late stage of his life: it depicts a bearded old man walking with the aid of two sticks, accompanied by the inscription ‘I am still learning’.

This essay was originally published in the Jul–Aug 2021 NGV Magazine



Advertisement for Los Caprichos in Diario de Madrid, 6 Feb. 1799.


Leandro Fernández de Moratín, letter to Juan Antonio Melón González, Bordeaux, 27 June 1824.